My conversation with the real tobacco insider

by Keith Barber

It’s no secret that my favorite living actor is Al Pacino and one ofhis best roles was playing Lowell Bergman, the “60 Minutes” producerwho fought tooth-and-nail to get Jeffrey Wigand’s interview on the airin the Michael Mann film The Insider. Wigand, played by RussellCrowe, became big tobacco’s ultimate whistleblower when his interviewwith Mike Wallace aired on “60 Minutes” in February 1996. Last week, I found out that Wigand prefers to be called “person of conscience” during a one-hour telephone interview that proved equally enlightening as the “60 Minutes” segment. In the landmark interview, Wigand, who served as vice president for research and development for Brown & Williamson for five years before being abruptly fired in March 1993, charged that executives at the nation’s third-largest cigarette manufacturer knew tobacco was addictive despite the denials of its CEO Thomas Sandefur to a Congressional committee on the issue. Wigand also charged that Brown & Williamson used “impact boosting” or the adding of harmful chemicals such as ammonia to cigarettes to help keep smokers addicted. Brown & Williamson attempted to sue Wigand for violating his confidentiality agreement but the lawsuit was dismissed as a condition of the historic June 20, 1997 $368 billion settlement between the attorneys general of 40 states and the tobacco industry.

Last week was a good week for Wigand, who founded the anti-smoking advocacy group Smoke-Free Kids. On April 2, Congress approved a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products by a vote of 298-112. Also, the NC House passed a statewide smoking ban on businesses that employ or serve minors by a margin of 72-45 on April 2. The bill, a scaled-back version of a measure that would have imposed a comprehensive smoking ban in all workplaces, now goes to the NC Senate for approval. Anti-smoking advocates and health professionals have expressed optimism that the state Senate may change the bill back to its original text and impose a comprehensive smoking ban in all public places. Wigand said the actions of Congress and the General Assembly represent a monumental step forward in the efforts of anti-smoking advocates to curb youth smoking. “Tobacco products as they are today are the only products we have that — if used as intended — kill, and are not controlled by any regulatory body,” Wigand said. All that could soon change if the US Senate follows the House’s lead. Despite a threatened filibuster by US Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) bill to place tobacco products under the jurisdiction of the FDA appears poised to win easy passage. Wigand said research shows there are a number of benefits to smoking bans in all public places. “First of all, it de-socializes smoking,” Wigand said. “Children who are with their parents going out to dinner see someone smoking. Teenagers like to be like adults, so part of the whole concept of creating a smoke-free environment and smoke-free restaurants is that it protects workers and non-smokers.” Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposal to place a $1 a pack tax increase on cigarettes as part of her effort to balance the state budget has drawn the ire of many state legislators, but Wigand strongly supports Perdue’s proposal, citing studies that indicate price hikes on cigarettes deter younger smokers. Wigand then reeled off a long line of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control as evidence that placing tobacco under the jurisdiction of the FDA is long overdue. Eighty-five percent of today’s smokers started before the age of 18, the average beginning smoking age is 12 to 13 years old; 440,000 smokers die in the US every year from tobacco use; 35,000- 55,000 non-smokers die annually from involuntary smoking/ second hand smoking; and the direct health care costs associated with treating smokers and the loss of productivity in the workplace totals $200 billion annually. That is why curbing youth smoking is one of the keys to improving public health and simultaneously, our nation’s economy, Wigand said. The logic behind making tobacco a regulated product is simple. “What parent would allow their child to go to a school that had asbestos floating around in it?” Wigand asked. “Why do we have mandatory seat belts? Government isn’t overstepping its bounds. It’s doing its duty; I applaud the legislators of North Carolina. It’s a tobacco state but their job is to protect their constituency and the future.” In response to criticism that the proposed legislation violates the rights of smokers, Wigand quoted John Stuart Mill, the 19 th century British philosopher. “The only way government can take away the liberty of one, is when the liberty of that one infringes on the flourishment of another,’” Wigand said. “They’re doing it because there is just reason for them to intervene in protecting others. When there is a harm being created on innocents, do I not have the responsibility to protect them?” As he spoke these words, Wigand’s voice became dramatic and Shakespearean. It was as if he was channeling Russell Crowe. It reminded me of a scene in The Insider, when Lowell Bergman tells Wigand to keep the faith. “I’m running out of heroes, man,” Bergman says. As we wrapped up our conversation, I thought of poet Maya Angelou’s statement that of all human virtues, courage is most important. We all should thank Jeffrey Wigand for his courage in telling a story that had to be told, so that hopefully, future generations will not suffer the fate of the hundreds of thousands who die from smoking-related illness every single year.